Fixing the Chicago Bottleneck.

Chicago has always been a railroad town with, as far as I know, more rail activity than any other U.S. city. For decades, passenger trains left Chicago and headed off in every direction. And, of course, the same trains arrived in Chicago arriving from every direction. Passenger rail ain’t what it used to be, but even today, Amtrak alone has a couple of dozen trains in and out of Chicago’s Union Station every day. And then there are all the Metra commuter trains.
Add literally hundreds of freight trains to all of that activity and you end up with congestion even under ideal conditions. Now add bitter cold or heavy snow to the mix and suddenly you have a huge problem. The net result is that all rail traffic is delayed—both passenger and freight— whether going to or coming from or just trying to get through Chicago.
The situation is more urgent for Amtrak than the other railroads because of its human cargo, but the on-time-performance for many of their long-distance trains has been just awful. Last time I took the Lake Shore Limited to Chicago, we were 20 minutes late out of South Bend, but lost an additional two hours over the 80 miles between there and Chicago.
For all these reasons, a blue-ribbon panel was created by Amtrak and commissioned to identify the problems and come back with recommendations. Many of their findings, which most “civilians” would find shocking, were already well known to railroaders. For instance, trains operated by each of the several railroads passing through Chicago are all controlled by that particular railroad’s dispatchers. So when a Union Pacific freight leaves its own tracks and crosses onto tracks owned by BNSF, the engineer of that train is handed off from the UP dispatcher to the BNSF dispatcher.
Imagine, if you will, what it would be like if that system were applied to commercial aviation and the movements of each plane landing and taking off at O’Hare would only be directed by an air traffic controller working for that individual airline.
And that’s just one of the problems with which this panel has wrestled. Give ‘em credit, though, because they’ve come up with recommendations for dealing with a long list of challenges that need to be fixed before rail traffic can move smoothly through Chicago. The last and by far the biggest of those challenges: Who’s going to pay for it all?